How To Shop for a Laptop
The smart way to determine what you need and how to get the best value
Step 1: Determine your needs
It might sound obvious, but people often have no idea what they need, so they spend more than they need with some vague, hand-wavey notion of 'future-proofing.'
If all you're going to do is write papers for school, or posts for a blog, you do not need a $2000 laptop! 16 GB of RAM, a top-end i7 processor, high-dollar discrete graphics, and a Quad HD screen are not necessary for all but a very, very few people (if you're not sure if you need this kind of computer...you don't).
In fact, if the ONLY thing you're going to do with your computer is blog, you need something that can run a web browser. A $200 Chromebook (or similarly-priced Windows competitor) will almost certainly suffice. The majority of students would do fine with a $400 entry-level Windows machine. You can find the best deals as of December 2015 here.
But most people will, understandably, go for something in the middle. After all, why get a computer--which can do almost anything you'd ask of it--for only one thing?! If you get a decent computer, you can use it for: blogging, shopping, surfing the Internet, writing documents, creating spreadsheets or presentations, learning new skills like programming, wasting time on YouTube videos...the possibilities are endless! :)
If you already have a more powerful computer and you're looking for a portable, durable blogging machine--go cheap. Get a bargain, sub-$300 Chromebook or Windows machine with 11-inch screen.
If you're looking for an all-purpose PC, you'll want something with a little more horsepower, so to speak. A Celeron or Atom processor likely won't be good enough (tablets and Chromebooks excluded). A computer with less than 2 GB of RAM won't be good enough (again, tablets and Chromebooks excluded). If you're planning to carry it around all the time, a laptop with a 17.3-inch screen will be too large and heavy.
I think $400-600 is the sweet spot. The vast majority of people will be perfectly well-suited with a computer that falls in this range. You can see the best options here or here!
You may be tempted to get a more expensive computer than you need, because they're appealing and well-marketed and sometimes have cool or gimmicky features.
If you're a creative professional (think professional photographer, music producer, video editor, designer, etc.), you may want a Mac, like many others in those fields. You may opt to get more bang for your buck with a high-end Windows machine instead, but your peers may give you a funny look. More to the point, they may have programs or files that aren't compatible with a Windows computer. You may want to conduct more research on your particular field before making a decision.
If you're an engineering or architecture student, or need heavy-duty programs like AutoCAD, you'll want a strong processor and discrete graphics. You're likely going to need a pretty powerful, pretty expensive computer to meet those needs.
Several months ago, I posted an article here that can help you better understand how to shop smart for computers (though it explains some technical information that you won't necessarily need to know).
Step 2: Cut Through the B.S.
We've all heard myths like these, and it amounts to nothing more than insidious cliches repeated, zombie-like, by people who swallow the marketing hook, line, and sinker:
1. "Macs don't get viruses."
2. "You get what you pay for."
3. "Windows Updates are THE WORST!"
4. "Macs are for idiots who can't figure out how to use a computer!"
5. "Windows computers are cheap and low-quality. Macs are made to last!"
Busting the above myths:
1. All computers get viruses. Now that Apple computers are more popular than they used to be, bad guys are now writing viruses for them! If you use a computer, you're susceptible--it's smart to install a firewall and/or antivirus program, no matter what operating system you run!
I personally use Comodo Firewall (the free version), and Windows Defender is included with all new Windows computers. I also keep Malwarebytes Anti-Malware and CCleaner around, just in case. All are free, and my computer is free of infections. If/when you download these, make sure you aren't downloading any bundled software or "free trials" of paid versions of the software. The free versions should suffice, as long as you avoid getting tricked into downloading shady stuff. Actually, this is a decent (though not comprehensive) roundup of stuff to watch for.
2. Sure, but that doesn't mean that sub-$500 computers will fall apart if you look at them cross-eyed, as this statement is usually meant to imply.
Avoid manufacturers with a spotty reliability history, and you should be OK. Here's a reference for you, though you should do your own double-checking. Go back to reports from previous years, or from other sources like this or this, and you'll pick up patterns.
Things I've noticed about manufacturer reliability: Acer and HP generally bring up the rear; Apple, ASUS, and Toshiba usually do pretty well. Samsung, Lenovo, and Dell have varied over the years (though I have different reasons for avoiding Samsung). Sony no longer makes PCs, so their mediocre reliability rankings don't count.
3. Well, when a flaw or vulnerability is caught, Microsoft issues an update to patch it. And if somebody tries to argue that another operating system (like Apple's OS X, Google's Chrome OS, or any of the various Linux-based OSes) doesn't have any flaws or vulnerabilities, just laugh at them.
4. Not true. Some IT professionals use Macs at home, because their job involves fixing inevitable hassles or screw-ups with Windows and/or Linux. They don't want to deal with the same systems at home. There's something to be said for simplicity!
However, OS X is also locked down and walled off, making it very difficult to customize to your liking. Microsoft, on the other hand, allows users to really mess around and change how the system operates.
If you poke around in things you shouldn't, you can even ruin a Windows computer! (Note: This isn't an issue unless you mess with some things that are not easily accessible to a typical user. For instance: don't touch regedit!)
5. If you spend $1000 on a computer--whether it's a Mac or a Windows--it's probably going to be well-built and pretty durable. Some Windows computers are cheap and poorly constructed; others are expensive and made of aluminum, magnesium, and even lined with Gorilla Glass! The nice thing about Windows computers is that you have a variety of choices!
Apple's strategy, in contrast, is to give customers about 5 portable options (11-inch/13-inch MacBook Air, 12-inch MacBook, 13-inch MacBook Pro, 15-inch MacBook Pro, or iPad).
Don't believe the hype for any product! Each has benefits and drawbacks; each does some things well...and other things not so well. The best option for you may not be the best option for someone else's needs.
Step 3: Find some options
That's what this post is for! You can find some options to suit your needs here, here, or here!
Step 3.5: Get an SSD
Seriously. Just do it.
SSDs tend to be used in $700+ laptops (but not all $700+ laptops have SSDs, unfortunately).
You can get a cheaper laptop for $400 or less, and with a little DIY, you can install a $50 SSD yourself! There are handy guides here or here, as well as video tutorials like this or this, so you can see the necessary procedures in action. The DIY option will get you the speed and reliability benefits of an SSD, without paying an arm and a leg for an expensive machine--the best of both worlds!
Caveat emptor: A hard drive swap is sometimes easy...but sometimes it isn't. It may also void your warranty.
Step 4: Enjoy your new computer!
*Bonus Tip: I used to be bullish on getting refurbished computers...until my primary laptop (which I bought used) died of a corrupted BIOS (a $300 repair...for a $400 computer! Naturally, I replaced it). A refurb may be a way to get a great deal--but I'd only do that for a secondary computer, not for my main machine. You just never know what problems may crop up down the road.